Monday, 21 July 2014

Damnatio Memoriae

Each time a celebrity is jailed for sexual abuse, or is definitively found guilty by a posthumous review, you can guarantee a flurry of commentaries on how their memory will now be effaced, their image edited out of the Top of the Pops archive and embarrassing memorials removed from view, thereby enacting symbolic violence against their person. Though we may be uncomfortable with the overlap of this practice with Stalinist airbrushing and the "unperson", there is also a sense that removing the disgraced's representation from the public record is a punishment with an impeccable pedigree. As a political act, this goes back to the Roman's damnatio memoriae and the cartouche tippexing of the Ancient Egyptians. As a social act, this is merely a larger-scale example of the willed forgetting and photo-chopping that follows on from bitter divorces and family estrangements. Rewriting the historical record to excise painful memories is normal.

In the early days of this process, while the evil nature of the disgraced is being established beyond doubt, nothing is allowed that might contradict the reduction of the person to the essence of their evil acts. Once the reputation is sufficiently blackened, contrasting imagery begins to reappear. The bigger the evil, and thus the more secure it is from revision, the more of this hinterland can be accommodated over time. A good example of this is Adolf Hitler, whose documentary appearances in recent decades have featured more incidental scenes with children and animals, not to mention the now clich├ęd horsing around with Eva Braun at Berchtesgaden, rather than just stock footage of ranting or map-pondering. A Channel 4 documentary about Hitler's dogs is surely in development already.

Presenting a rounded and contextual picture of a person is good history, but it also serves to blur the boundary between the person and their environment, i.e. other people. One reason for the extreme editing of the early years is the fear of contamination: the embarrassment of the other DJ seen grinning as Jimmy Savile leers at a young girl on TOTP, or the variety show host introducing his "very good friend" Rolf Harris. Effacement is always a cover-up, obscuring the connivance and negligence of others as much as the memory of the disgraced. This extends to the common stock of social memory, with associates now claiming they "hardly knew" X or had "little to do with" Y.

This willed oblivion will be much harder in future due to the inexhaustible memory of the Internet. The aftermath of the EU Court of Justice ruling on Google and the misnamed "right to be forgotten" has seen a campaign by the US search company to convert the issue from one of data property to one of "press censorship", at the same time as the UK government has forced through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (Drip) Bill, which will provide Google et al with the legal cover to continue supplying GCHQ with data. The framing of the EU judgement as a threat to "free speech" and "fair comment" is in the interests of both Google, which uses "freedom" to enclose the commons, and a print media that is largely anti-Leveson, anti-EU and keen to adopt the moral high ground relative to the search giant.

In practice, the threat of censorship arising directly from the ECJ ruling is non-existent, not least because the obligations on Google and others have yet to be established in the national courts. The US company is deliberately and provocatively jumping the gun in order to trigger an anti-ECJ groundswell. It serves Google's interests for people to assume that it and the Internet are one, rather than it being simply a glorified index that only covers a fraction of the Web and is already biased by the needs of advertising and existing government regulation. Google's difficulty with the ECJ is the product of its ambition to construct a persona for all users, i.e. a single profile encompassing both the individual's behaviour in Google applications and the wider "file" of that individual fragmented across the Web. It cannot admit the trivial impact of the ruling without simultaneously robbing its brand of the mystique of omniscience. There is a sound commercial reason why Google does not even acknowledge the existence of its competitors in the search market.

In contrast, while Google gets agitated about something that its users (mostly) don't care about, Facebook finds itself criticised for treating its users like guinea pigs, even though its now notorious "experiment" was simply a standard A/B test of the sort routinely carried out by commercial websites: just substitute the words "interested" and "bored" for "happy" and "sad" (the infantilism of the experiment is noteworthy). The "emotion contagion" finding is hardly news, and the focus on manipulation by Facebook alone is odd when editing content to stimulate interest or reaction is what all media organisations do every day of the week (the negative reaction by old media may indicate a fear that new media is much more effective at shaping public opinion).

The basis of the ethical storm is that while users have willingly alienated their data, they did not believe they were agreeing to be experimented on when they signed the terms of service (which they didn't read anyway). The difference this highlights is that Facebook see the users as an extension of the data (which they ultimately own), while the users still believe they are independent, even if they have ceded rights over that data. Google has the same view as Facebook, hence the importance they give to treating the online persona as superior to the offline person. The ECJ ruling embodies a different philosophy, which sees the data as the inalienable property of the citizen. The dispute is thus being framed as a conflict between previously complementary liberal principles: free speech and private property. Of course, free speech, in the particular form of a "free press", is essentially a property right, so the whole affair (including Drip) boils down to a tussle over property.

Because personal data is increasingly the property of others, I suspect that the convention of damnatio memoriae may well be on its way out. The instinct and desire to obliterate will remain at the individual level, but that just means "unfriending" and deleting accounts so that the offensive memory is hidden from your own view. At the societal level, organisations like the BBC, with a perceived responsibility to curate the historical record to reflect public opinion, will find their actions increasingly irrelevant and difficult to defend. That epigraph is the property of Google, that cartouche the property of Facebook.

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